The journal of Paul M. Watson.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Lost Vegas

Back in the 17th century the Spanish found the valley and called it the meadows. The mountain encircled valley provided an oasis from the desert surrounds. It turned out to be a poor gamble as now, 300 years later, the meadows are gone and we have the desert city known as Las Vegas.

There I was in what used to be a private jet, but is now a fake-leather clad 50 seater flying bus with a comedian known as Latisha serving us drinks, descending on the fabled city. I was 26, single, of questionable habits and carrying enough dead presidents to light several Cubans. Stretching before me were 5 easy days of a conference and 4 nights which I hoped wouldn't be quiet so easy. Vegas did not strike me as my kind of town but when in Rome...

You land in what can only be called a casino with a runway. Stepping out of the walkway from the plane the first thing you see are slot machines. Banks and banks of them. Thank you, bling, for, bling, flying, bling, Virgin, bling, Atlantic, bling, airways. The strangest part of this scene is that travelers, fresh off a 12 hour flight from London, do gamble. Before even going through airport security you can sit down and get into debt. You don't even have to collect your baggage first. Just leave it trundling lonely around the baggage claim as you cash out. Sorry to those suckers who gave their loose change to the starving Ethiopian kid on the blue packets.

Through security and out onto the road where you are efficiently taxied straight into the, neon, glowing heart of Las Vegas. I'll be honest, I was expecting more. I expected a barrage of light and sound. If the theme tune from the Las Vegas TV show kicked in then all the better. But by the second set of traffic lights I asked why I wasn't on my third jack and rocks? Why was my traveling companion not snorting lines off of the back of a smut-card and why, good lord why, wasn't there a naked woman in our taxi already. Instead I noticed tall but hardly towering hotels, bright but barely blinding displays and sidewalks with enough space to park a stretch Hummer between the groups of waddling Japanese. I also noticed a McDonalds, a Dennys, a dozen StarBucks and, the highlight so far, an In 'n Out which I had never seen before. Wow, hamburgers.

I am not jaded. I am not cynical or wordly wise, I am easy to please for Pete's sake but Las Vegas in that first hour was underwhelming. I knew by the time we got to our hotel that Vegas had been commercialised. Sure, it has always been about the money but back then the money was dirty and the streets dirtier. 100 dollar bills were rolled up and used properly back then, they weren't exchanged for a quarter-pounder and 90 in change. When you couldn't pay your debts you had to talk to Luigi or Mario, not phone the gamblers helpline and get a three year residual loan at favourable rates. McDonalds, Dennys, StarBucks. Commercialised by the same bland, generic-Viagra using, Westernised globalisation mega-brands that make 100 chain outlets a niche experience.

Fuck you Ronald McDonald for turning Las Vegas into Disneyland for gamblers.

At this point I burnt my copy of Fear and Loathing, was glad Hunter was dead so that he wouldn't have to see this and checked-into The Mirage. Quite apt I thought.

A mirage is what it is, beckoning in the distance with a seductive shimmer of golden hips. What you get are a bunch of overgrown rocks, some brackish water and a burnt out palm-tree.

Around 1am that first night after dragging the strip I sat down in a non-descript canteen and considered what I had seen. I was struck most by the lack of sin in Sin city. How does a town with such a reputation manage to feel so tame? I had been warned about the smut-card peddlers but chaps, you get hassled better by the Salvation Army. Advice was to stear clear of the old Strip but when I went it was the most charming part of Vegas, if one degree above zero can be considered charming. Hookers are plentiful but I was propositioned by a Greek selling lamb gyros on Santorini with more skill than these girls. And if you have a problem with the scantily, but hardly daringly, clad girls in the numerous billboards around the city then, my friend, avoid Europe.

Maybe the classic titty-bar sums it up best. On the flight down a martial arts expert native to Las Vegas lit up as he found out it was my first time in Vegas. Oh, he beamed, you are going to love the titty bars. Anywhere that uses the word titties to label what are swaying, pneumatic, sweat-covered breasts attached to lithsome, gyrating strippers has as much sin as my local Baptist ministry. Mary-Anne from fifth-grade has titties. 15 years ago I sniggered at the word titties. 14 years ago I grew out of calling them titties. The Moulin Rouge does not have titties. Amsterdam does not have titties. Las Vegas has Disneyland titties.

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But if nothing happens in Vegas...

At least this is all true when sticking to The Strip. I didn't venture much off it. To those who will write and say Sin City is off The Strip then all I can say is that isn't what Las Vegas sells itself as.

Before I get to the fun I did have, for surprisingly fun I had in Las Vegas, I have to dither on excess. Las Vegas has excess in spades but it is all the wrong sort. There is no heart or soul in the excess. No mad, fearsome lords of Las Vegas sprinkling the strip with crazier creations. Instead you get crumbling copies of the rest of the world run by suits with profit goals and revenue models. Italy in the Belagio, France in Paris, Egypt in Luxor, Venice in the Venetian. Each and every one a stable, well run business that pays its bills, keeps the carpets clean and asks that you keep your voice down for the other guests.

I detested that Las Vegas is building Europe. The Belagio is almost beautiful, almost stylish and elegant. It hides its excess better than the rest. I didn't come to Las Vegas for class. I came for crass. I love European sensibility and charm but instead of flying half-way around the world to Vegas I could have taken a 2 hour, &euro5 RyanAir flight to the South of France. I could have seen the Gugenheim at the Gugenheim, Venice in Italy and the Caribbean from a yacht in the Caribbean.

I wanted towering, depraved monuments to megalomaniacally apogeed owners. I got a scaled down Eiffel Tower instead.

The people in Vegas are great. I haven't been anywhere else in the U.S.A. but I have never felt so happy paying 5 bucks for a Latte as I did in Las Vegas. Everywhere I went I was greeted with a big welcome, bigger smiles and lots of how'you'doins. You could ask for anything and while you wouldn't always get it they'd be sure to apologise for the lack and offer an extra side of fries. You could hail a passing working girl in the middle of the casino and ask for the way out. With a drawl and a smile you'd get directions. A friend who came down from Stockton, California to see me in Vegas said my accent did the trick but, you know, it felt a good deal more genuine than that.

I remember sitting one 3am with Lee from the U.K. at a bar. We had struck out on The Strip and were sliding through our G&Ts listening to a handful of Venetian employees off-duty. A bouncer, a waiter and a call-girl shooting the breeze without a care in the world. About this time Ted the barman told us that if we gambled on the machines built-into the bar then we would get free drinks. At $15 a round and only $10 to play the machine we thought this was a good deal. I am a recovering gambling addict (not really) and Lee is a conflicted Buddhist though so we weren't about to gamble. Thankfully Lee is shameless as they come and hollered over to the call-girl; Girlfriend, girlfriend, come blow our money for us, we want our free drinks.

And she did. This Amazonian model of a woman slipped her way over to our side of the bar, sat down between us and after some confusion as to why we weren't gambling ourselves, gambled for us. For the next hour or so we sat there chatting and laughing, cracking jokes with the nearly empty bar and fed the call-girl money whenever she lost it all. Eventually it came to an end and with a Dutch kiss from this well spoken but easy going lady of the night we bling, bling, blinged our way off slot machines back to our rooms. It was a surreal experience.

Another night we had a conference party at the Tao where free drinks and the cheesiest music this side of a Beach Boys bar led me up onto some tables to dance with a notable celebrity (of the geek, I.T. kind mind you.) That night ended with the best hamburger I have had in my life. A nearly foot high beast seared from the flanks of a Kobe-beef cow. Never has paying $19 for a burger been so easy.

There were Norwegians, Germans, Swiss, French, Brits, Irish and Americans who were all up for a good time. I met a beautiful Swedish woman whose company alone made Las Vegas worth it.

Honestly the people of Las Vegas, foreigners and local, did a lot to make the trip an experience to remember. Las Vegas is dull and tame, a shadow of what it must have been in past decades. But the good folk of it, they live on.


Blogger Mike said...

Although it sounds like there were some similarities, your trip sounded quite a bit different than mine...

7:19 PM

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